The ZionNarrows North Fork of the Virgin River
Ultra Classic. One gosh darn incredible journey through the center of the earth. This is a vigorous and envigorating stroll down a river. Or do it in one day as a river run. Encroyable! Expealidilicious!
OK, you’ve heard it. But what’s it like? You basically hike down a river, ankle to thigh deep, through a canyon of vertical beautiful sandstone 300 – 500 feet deep. Repeat, with variations. It’s plenty long – 16 miles total. It’s definitely wet, and usually involves 3 or 4 spots where a full swim or deep wading is required.
You can blast it in a single day, or spend a little more time and enjoy it. I recommend the latter. A backcountry permit and camping permit are required, and you will be assigned a campsite. Try to get the “Giant Alcove”. The first day requires less deep wading and thus your gear stays dry, so dry bags are not absolutely essential. The water is murky and many boulders are hidden in the stream. A walking staffg is very helpful and makes the day much more enjoyable.
Daytrip or overnight, you need a permit. Visit our friends at the Backcountry Desk, Visitor Center . Drive to Chamberlain Ranch: Head East on Rt 9. Turn Left 2.5 miles past the park boundary. Follow the main road as shown on the map. Eighteen miles from Rt 9, turn left on a smaller road after crossing the North Fork (a small stream). Sneak quietly past the ranch buildings, shutting cattle gates behind you, to the end of the road at a ford of the river. There is a sign and register. Park here. Delicately cross the stream, then follow the dirt road alongside the stream. The canyon narrows and starts to twist back and forth. Walk down the river when it is no longer avoidable.
The river starts small but gains strength throughout. It can be murky if rain has recently knocked sediment into the crick. The stream bottom is usually covered with large, round cobbles which are annoying to the toes, especially when unseen. Ski poles are very helpful, as are shoes that provide protection for the feet. After the first two miles, hiking is in the river about 50% of the time. Down to Big Springs, walking in the river alternates with walking through beautiful pocket forests on the side of the river.
After 6.9 miles, the river drops 10 feet in a nice little waterfall. Bypass on the left, behind an obvious large block.
Half a mile further, Deep Creek comes in on the right, carrying about the same flow as the canyon you have been following. This is the point of no return – if the combined flow is too big, this is the time to turn around.
Kolob Creek comes in on the right about 45 minutes past Deep Creek. Exploring up Kolob Creek is time well spent. Two and a half miles up Kolob is an icy pool and a dryfall that prevents further upstream travel.
About an hour past Kolob Creek is Goose Creek , also worthy of exploration. The creeks coming in offer less-silty water that is more easily pumped than the main flow.
Forty-five minutes past Goose Creek is Big Springs. This is a great place to fill up your waterbottles for the last part of the journey. Be careful of the poison ivy around the springs. Big Springs is about as far up the canyon as people dayhike, coming up from the bottom. (All the campsites are above Big Springs).
From Big Springs, the canyon narrows and hiking in the river becomes continuous. This is the most dramatic and unrelenting section of the hike. After 2-1/2 hours, Orderville canyon comes in on the left. Most people will want to hike up Orderville a bit, to enjoy Orderville’s lovely narrows, and to escape the noise of the main river and find some sunlight to warm up in.
An hour past Orderville, you pop out at the bottom. Follow the paved tourist trail to the Temple of Sinawava , and pick up the shuttle back to your car. Voila.
Footwear: Sandals are not appropriate. The water is murky and you will bash your toes into oblivion. Light hiking boots that are of sufficient quality to not be ruined by the constant wetting are a good choice, or your basic sneaker with a neoprene, thick wool or synthetic sock.
Ski Poles: ski poles or a good walking stick are almost mandatory for this hike.
Clothing: even in the heat of summer, it is damp and cool along the full length of the river. Bring some synthetic fleece or synthetic underwear to hang out in.
Waterproofing: while drybags are really, truly recommended, it is also possible to adequately waterproof your gear using Trash Compactor Bags. All your gear must fit INSIDE your pack – plastic bags on the outside will get holes from rubbing against stuff. Use the heavy Trash Compactor Bags, and seal them really well. Use two bags sealed separately. It helps to place one double bag at the bottom of the pack (sleeping bag and overnight stuff), and one near the top for food and stuff you might need to get to quickly. Put everything in the drybags, even things that won’t be ruined by getting wet.
Personal Hygiene: the Narrows is a heavily-used fragile ecosystem, that is beginning to smell like a toilet. When you pick up your permit, also pick up a “Restroom II” foil bag latrine system – and use it. This small effort of good citizenship will make a huge difference in the long run.